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June 1, 2006
Rap music introduces a fad for mouth jewelry, and dental professionals hesitate to say the trend is golden.
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Rap music introduces a fad for mouth jewelry, and dental professionals hesitate to say the trend is golden.

Frank Marina wears upper and lower grills every day. The custom-fitted mouth jewelry snaps in place like a bleaching tray.
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Music promoter Frank Marina of Washington, D.C., takes the saying “Put your money where your mouth is” literally. Marina wears hundreds of dollars worth of sparkly gold jewelry on his upper and lower teeth. The grills, as they’re called, snap over his teeth like a bleaching tray and provide him with a fashionable smile that epitomizes the popular slang word, bling.

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Removable grills, also called fronts or plates, have been around since the ‘80s, when singer Flava Flav wore a set of simple gold caps. The fad exploded late last year when a rap song called “Grillz” hit the charts.

“Call me George Foreman, ‘cause I’m selling everybody grills,” raps Paul Wall, a Houston musician and grill-maker who performs the song with Nelly.

Grills have their origins in poverty, Wall said in interviews. He recalled a time when only poor people had their front teeth repaired with gold, because it was cheaper.

“When I was young,” Marina said, “a lot of my older relatives had gold teeth, and I always wanted them, too. When I got older, I wanted them more for the shock value.”

He got his first set three years ago, when he picked them out of a book at a jewelry store. “They were pretty plain, so later I designed a second set myself. The jeweler said he had never made anything like them.”

Because Marina is self-employed, he can wear his grills every day. “I work in the music business, so grills are a little more acceptable in my job market. If I worked in a professional work setting, such as an office, I couldn’t wear them all the time.”

In the early 1990s, musicians and professional athletes began wearing grills. Some, like Marina, wanted shock value. Other saw them as extreme symbols of respect, power, and wealth. Fans caught on a bit more slowly, but since “Grillz” was released, the fad has spread.

Tim Adkins, producer of a documentary on hip hop music, sees a lot of grills when he travels, but only in certain areas of the country. “It’s true that grills are a hot fad right now, but it’s not true that everyone is into it. It’s more of a regional thing. Dallas, Memphis, Atlanta; I’ve also seen them in St. Louis and Detroit. Some folks on the east and west coasts wear them, but not as much as in the south and midwest.”

Buying a grill is as easy as walking into a jewelry store in some parts of the country. But if you live far from the centers of rap and hip hop fashion, you can still have bling by ordering it off the Internet.

Wall, who with Nelly raps the praises of glittery smiles, is the owner of TV Jewelry in Houston, which makes high-profile grills for sports and entertainment figures. The company also sells through the Internet at To order a grill from TV Jewelry, customers are advised to have their dentist make “mouth molds.” Customers choose a style, write a hefty check, and send the molds to Houston. A few weeks later, they receive their very own grill.

While jewelers seem to have a corner on the grill-making market, a few of them have run afoul of the law. Paul Faucette, a jeweler in Tampa, Fla., had a booming business making grills for everyone from teen-agers to grandmothers. He was featured in an article in the St. Petersburg Times that stated he made as many as 15 grills a week. He said he never touched his clients’ teeth, but instead handed them filled impression trays that they inserted themselves. His stepson, Edward Wilcox, was also a grill-maker with a shop in Bradenton.

After the story appeared, local dental professionals called the newspaper and the state dental board, voicing concerns about oral health, asepsis, and legality. Wilcox was arrested Dec. 13 and charged with practicing dentistry without a license, a felony in Florida, and his stepfather Faucette voluntarily shut down his business.

Besides the fact that the grills are being fabricated by people with no knowledge of dentistry or asepsis, dental professionals worry about the conditions the grills may conceal. A teenager with malocclusion or decayed teeth may wear a grill to hide a less-than-perfect smile - and never take it out.

The American Dental Association has no official policy on grills, but ADA consumer adviser Dr. Matthew Messina has concerns.

“Grills that fit have no adverse effects if the wearers practice optimal oral hygiene,” Dr. Messina said. “But the people wearing them are in their 20s, they eat with them in, and goodness knows how long they leave them in. Grills are plaque traps. The mouth is a warm, moist environment, there may be tissue impingement, and there may be a contact allergy with precious metal. I’ve heard one maker is telling customers to use jewelry cleaner on them - that can cause a chemical burn. It’s just not good. We have significant concerns regarding decay and long-term periodontal health. A seemingly harmless amount of gum recession or decay caused by a grill can magnify and cause problems for a lifetime.” This is especially problematic for people in their 20s, who will need their teeth for another 50 to 70 years.

Marina is satisfied with the quality of his grill and with his home care. “My second grill fits better than the first. (The jeweler) took more time with it, and it shows. The first grill was a little loose, and my second grill fits like a retainer. I have not noticed any wear patterns or bite problems.”

His dentist knows he wears one. “He tells me to brush more often and keep the grill clean, especially the inside because it can hold bacteria. If it’s not cleaned regularly it can cause gum disease and gingivitis.

“I have regular dental check ups, and I haven’t had any problems due to my grills. I brush my teeth every day, and I brush and soak the grills in peroxide every other day. I take them out of my mouth to eat because the white gold is thin and could bend from chewing. Also, I don’t sleep with my grills in.”

The grill explosion may vanish soon, some grill-makers fear, and custom mouth jewelry may end up in the back of the closet with last year’s shoes. But until that happens, be aware that unexplained periodontal or decay problems on anteriors may be caused by a fashion craze.

Where to go

Besides the Paul Wall Web site, here are some other online places for grills shopping. Prices range from less than $40 for a single gold cap, to about $300 for six basic fronts, to a whopping $20,000-$30,000 for the jewel-encrusted styles worn by entertainers.